Encouraging Girls in Science Courses and Careers

Encouraging Girls in Science Courses and Careers

In the United States women comprise approximately 50% of the work force, yet only 9% are employed as scientists and engineers. Factors contributing to this situation have been analyzed in research studies. Explanations have ranged from differences in spatial ability related to a sex-linked gene to differences in early childhood toys and games. One study reported a dramatic decline in positive attitudes toward science as girls mature. The authors attribute this decline to startling inequities in the number of science activities experienced by males and females in elementary and secondary classrooms. In addition, the analysis of the results from the 1981-82 National Assessment of Educational Progress science study indicate that girls continue to score below the national mean on all science achievement items and to express negative attitudes toward science. Although societal, educational, and personal factors are all involved, differences within the science classroom may be a contributing factor to low interest of women in science and scientific careers.

However some girls like science and continue to study science. In order to determine what motivates these girls to pursue science courses and careers, a group of researchers conducted nationwide surveys to identify teachers who have motivated high school girls to continue in science. In addition to assessing instructional techniques, classroom climate, and teacher-student interactions, a selected sample of students (former and current) responded to questionnaires which assessed attitudes, intellectual and socio-cultural variables.

Two types of research, observational and survey, were used to gather data for this project. The case studies, which were the observational part of this project, provided information about the student-teacher and student-student interactions. Case studies are limited in the extent to which they may produce generalizations applicable to other situations. Therefore, they were supplemented with survey data, describing the abilities, activities, and aspirations of the involved students and teachers. These research efforts led to the following conclusions.

Teachers who successfully encourage girls in science:

  • Maintain well-equipped, organized, and perceptually stimulating classrooms.
  • Are supported in their teaching activities by the parents of their students and are respected by current and former students.
  • Use non-sexist language and examples and include information on women scientists.
  • Use laboratories, discussions, and weekly quizzes as their primary modes of instruction and supplement those activities with field trips and guest speakers.
  • Stress creativity and basic skills and provide career information.

Factors which discourage girls in science:

  • High school counselors who do not encourage further courses in science and mathematics.
  • Lack of information about science-related career opportunities and their prerequisites.
  • Sex-stereotyped views of science and scientists which are projected by texts, media, and many adults.
  • Lack of development of spatial ability skills (which could be fostered in shop and mechanical drawing classes).
  • Fewer experiences with science activities and equipment which are stereotyped as masculine (mechanics, electricity, astronomy).

The teachers, both male and female, who were successful in motivating girls to continue to study science practiced "directed intervention." That is, girls were asked to assist with demonstrations; were required to perform, not merely record, in the laboratories; and were encouraged to participate in science-related field trips. In addition, teachers stressed the utility of math and science for future careers.

Both male and female students in the schools identified as "positive toward girls in science" were questioned about their attitudes toward science and science careers. When compared with a national sample, the students in these schools had a much more positive outlook. This difference was especially pronounced among girls. When asked how frequently they like to attend science class, 67% of the girls responded "often," compared with 32% of the girls in the national sample. And when asked if they would like to pursue a science-related job, 65% of the girls said "yes," compared with 32% of the girls in the national sample.

This research suggests that teaching styles and other school-related factors are important in encouraging girls as well as boys to continue in science courses and careers. The path to a scientific career begins in high school and requires skilled and sensitive teachers. This research identified the following "Do's" and "Don'ts" for teachers who want to foster equity in science classrooms.

use laboratory and discussion activities
provide career information
directly involve girls in science activities
provide informal academic counseling
demonstrate unisex treatment in science classrooms

use sexist humor
use sex-stereotyped examples
distribute sexist classroom materials
allow boys to dominate discussions or activities
allow girls to passively resist


by Jane Butler Kahle


Dr. Jane Butler Kahle is Professor of Biological Science and Education and Associate Dean of the Graduate School at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana. She is a member of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, an organization that seeks to improve science teaching through research.

This research is described in a monograph available from the author and in a book, Women in Science: A Report from the Field, Falmer Press, available summer 1985. For further information contact: Dr. J. B. Kahle, 221 CHEM, Purdue University, W. Lafayette, Indiana 47907.